Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Water needs reverberate across Western resorts


Mountain Town News

GUNNISON, Colo. -- Mountain towns in the Rockies have a symbiotic relationship with Denver and other cities along Colorado's urbanized, Front Range corridor. It is typically also one of ambivalence.

That Front Range corridor already consists of four million people, the single largest source of skiing customers in North America, perhaps anywhere on the planet. That base allows Colorado ski areas with relative proximity to survive even when the more distant—but more lucrative—destination skiers stay home.

That was evident in last week's report from Vail Resorts, which has four major ski areas within a two-hour drive of that Front Range population, plus another at Lake Tahoe. While destination skiers dropped to 57 percent of the total visitation this past winter, compared to 63 percent the year before, Vail Resorts had a total decline of skier visits of only 5.3 percent.

But the need of Front Range cities for water causes continuing tension, with reverberations as far away as Jackson, Wyo.

Native supplies were proving inadequate even 125 years ago, when farmers discovered they had insufficient water during late summer to finish their crops. To accommodate their needs, creeks from the western side off the Continental Divide, in the area of Rocky Mountain National Park, were diverted eastward.

Since then, the headwaters areas from Granby southward to Winter Park, Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen have become configured with an intricate labyrinth of ditches, reservoirs, canals and tunnels, all with the intent of achieving what historian (and Telluride native) David Lavender described as a "massive violation of geography."

With the easy diversions completed decades ago, Front Range interests began to look for the small increments close in, what has been described as the "last drop," or with big straws in mind to draw from more distant sources.

The drought of 2002 provoked an even greater intensity of focus. So do population projections that envision the state's population doubling by the year 2050, with four-fifths of that population growth occurring along the Front Range.

One idea still being studied calls for pumping of water from Green Mountain Reservoir, located on the Blue River, about 20 miles to Dillon Reservoir, for diversion to Denver. A compensatory dam on the Eagle River west of Vail might be the quid pro quo to the Western Slope.

Other ideas look at more distant sources. Aaron Million proposes to withdraw water from the Green River, which starts in Wyoming's Wind River Range, an hour or two south of the town of Jackson. The river briefly enters Colorado before continuing down to a confluence with the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. As such, Million says, Colorado is entitled to the water from the Green as per river compacts reached in 1922 and 1948. But Wyoming isn't so sure. Even people in Jackson, who would be unaffected, have been testy about the idea.

Another idea calls for a diversion from the Yampa River, about 65 miles west of Steamboat Springs. The Yampa is tributary to the Green.

Still another thought sees a potential water source in Blue Mesa Reservoir, west of Gunnison. The water, some 200,000 acre-feet annually, might not actually be withdrawn from the reservoir; but the water stored within the reservoir might be appropriated for diversion to the Front Range.

Recently, reports the Crested Butte News, state representatives visited water district officials in the Gunnison area to talk about the long-term big picture. Harris Sherman, executive director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, said the state needs to be "looking 20, 30, 40 years out."

Complicating the envisioning is the likelihood of reduced water supplies because of warming temperatures and changed precipitation patterns. While scientists remain uncertain, one study at Colorado State University sees a 2 to 20 percent reduction in flows of the upper Colorado River, Sherman noted.

None of the world's problems were solved at the meeting. But, from the report in the News, it was an uncommonly good one for quotes.

Consider the remarks of Steve Glazer, a long-time water activist from Crested Butte.

"There are a plethora of poison pills here," he said.

One such "pill" is that Colorado really is not entitled to as much water as this plan envisions. A study is underway to help sort that out.

Ken Spann, who ranches between Crested Butte and Gunnison, also added some folksiness to the proceedings. He said not enough details about the plan have been provided about the Blue Mesa idea for him to have an informed opinion.

"Without meat on the horse, I can't tell whether to feed it hay or grain," Spann said.

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